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DESTINATION: WASHINGTON

Cascades' beckoning trails

Much of the national park's wilderness is rugged and untamed, but its waterfalls and grandeur are accessible to the less adventurous.

June 06, 2004|James T. Yenckel | Special to The Times

Winthrop, Wash. — The jumbled landscape of Washington's North Cascades National Park, one of the wildest corners of America, can be intimidating even to experienced hikers and backpackers.

The park embraces the most rugged peaks in the Cascade Range, which stretches north from Northern California to British Columbia. Drenched by Pacific storms, the western slopes nurture a dense, eerily dark forest dripping with moss. Bears and mountain lions prowl this often damp and chilly mountain realm, most of which has been officially declared a wilderness area.

My wife, Sandy, and I -- city dwellers with only modest outdoors credentials -- decided this untamed preserve was where we wanted to spend four days of our summer vacation last year. The big lure was the park's abundance of cascading waterfalls, which gave North Cascades its name. And we hoped to spend time exploring a trio of fiord-like lakes we had glimpsed on a quick drive-through trip six years ago. The lakes -- emerald green Gorge and Diablo and deep blue Ross -- are tucked into a winding, sheer-walled gorge traversed by the scenic North Cascades Highway, or State Route 20.

"This is like Norway," we had said on the earlier trip. We hoped our return look would confirm it.

Our strategy was to nibble at the park's edges on a series of mini-hikes, because neither of us had the inclination or the gear to plunge unguided into its awesome interior. Splashed with countless falls, lakes and streams, the periphery proved spectacular.

To reach the park, we flew into Spokane, then drove four hours. (We chose Spokane over Seattle, also four hours, to avoid city congestion.) Crossing the desert-like Columbia River Plateau, we found the Spokane route was nearly free of traffic.

We booked accommodations on the Cascades' drier, sunnier eastern slopes near the town of Winthrop, a one-time frontier outpost that looks like a set for a Hollywood western. As the park's eastern gateway, Winthrop is the staging area for outdoor recreation of all kinds: hiking, rafting, mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, rock climbing, trail riding.

We checked into Sun Mountain Lodge, a 102-room stone and wood lodge perched atop a high ridge overlooking Winthrop and the Methow Valley. Contemporary in style, the main building appears crafted with the care once lavished on the grand old national park lodges. At night, the lights of farmhouses twinkled below.

Our visit coincided with Methow Valley's annual Lavender Festival in mid-July. Fragrant fields of fresh lavender thrive in the dry climate (as they do in the south of France). To celebrate the burgeoning industry, four sponsoring nurseries welcomed visitors to their farms to view the gorgeous display and pick fresh bouquets.

In Twisp, which neighbors Winthrop, the growers set up stalls at the Saturday Methow Valley Farmer's Market to sell fresh lavender, lavender soap and other lavender products. We sipped lavender-flavored lemonade and ate lavender cookies while browsing fresh fruit and produce stands. That night, Sun Mountain's restaurant featured roasted rack of lamb with a lavender mustard crust.

The water in the mountains

We were eager to explore the Cascades, so we stopped by the Winthrop visitors center and picked up a map and brochure. It listed day hikes accessible from the North Cascades Highway. I realized none of the trails we planned to hike reached into the park, although it all but surrounded us. Only a geographer would quibble.

At 5,477-foot Washington Pass, the highway's highest point, we climbed to a panoramic overlook -- first doubling back to the car for sweatshirts to protect against a chilly wind. Below we could see a part of the highway we had just traveled. In the foreground, rock climbers inched up 7,740-foot Liberty Bell, a distinctive rock face. A ranger kept an eye on them through her telescope. Nearby, the granite fingers of Early Winter Spires, another soaring landmark, demanded to be photographed. At its base, Early Winter Creek glistened silver in the sun.

Our next stop was at Rainy Pass, where we pulled off the highway at the trailhead to Rainy Lake. The hike, a mile long and mostly level and paved, suited us. The reward was a lovely lake. From the parking lot, the path quickly plunged into a dense forest of spruce, fir and mountain hemlock, and I felt I was in the deep woods.

Bridges crossed two streams that splashed down the steep mountainside. Suddenly, trees gave way to a small, turquoise-tinted lake. Evergreens ringed its shores, and above, a protective wall of rock formed a nearly circular bowl. Below the summit, Lyall Glacier seemed no more than a pocket of snow. Three threadlike waterfalls cascaded down the rocks into the lake. We sat on a bench for a long time, reveling in the beauty and, I hope, implanting the view in our memory.

We were back on the road the next day, driving beyond Rainy Pass, entering the damp side of the Cascades and, yes, encountering a brief squall.

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